It is commonly understood that consent consists merely of saying “yes” or signing a contract. This superficial belief underlies much of the strand of political thought that I call voluntaryism (in radfem issues, sexual libertarianism). These little signals of consent represent the validation of the whole structure of exploitation. Such validation is not always necessary: for instance, no signal at all is necessary to enslave someone to a government. But in most areas we still like to pretend that we believe in consent.
I often refer to this entry because it shatters the myth of consent under capitalism; without any viable alternative to consent and a credible signal of non-consent, or under conditions of systemic inequality, consent is impossible (regarding inequality: it is not the mere fact of inequality which makes consent impossible, but the fact that we live in a system where some people are endowed with privilege and some are not).
The difference is that consent is superficially used as a tool to perpetuate “business as usual,” but a form of consent that is even the least bit meaningful shows “business as usual” to be a big lie, a scam of gargantuan proportions.
An old entry from femonade sheds some new light on this problem. FCM uses the example of a man and a woman having sex to illustrate the fact that consent, at least in the case of sex, cannot just mean to agree beforehand to do something: if the woman refuses to do that something at the moment it’s happening, the man has to stop or he is obviously guilty of rape. Based on this, she says:
[I]f legal and moral consent cannot be given prospectively, then [pornographic work] cannot be contracted for, period.
And boom goes the dynamite. If we start from the premise that consent must be constantly renewed in some form (not that both parties need to constantly say “I agree to this” every second), that it cannot be fixed, then a contract for pornographic work logically cannot be consensual.
Furthermore, even if any given pornographic work is consensual, it is impossible for any viewer to know that it is indeed consensual, because, as FCM points out, every porn movie is a performance and it’s impossible for us to know whether anything anyone says in them is part of the performance. Therefore anyone who watches porn is in essence fixating on something that may be rape, and has no problem with that fact.
One can make the same argument about non-pornographic movies, that actresses may be acting against their will. The difference is that most serious movie production companies don’t have a track record of forcing actresses to act against their will (although there are instances of actresses being hurt without their consent). The more profound difference is that there is much less inequality, on the whole, between an actress and a production company than between a porn actress and porn producers.
But of course we live in a rape-culture, so the fact that one may be viewing an instance of rape doesn’t really rankle anyone. Even viewing actual rape is pretty popular, porn-wise.
If we extend the argument to all forms of cooperation and start from the premise that consent cannot be given prospectively, period, then what does this imply for the structure of society? Well, it implies that the very concept of contracts is by definition invalid. This may seem like a bizarre statement, insofar as it may be hard to imagine a society that runs without contracts. But to say that an organization is not run by contract is not to say that roles cannot be formally described. What it does mean is that you cannot hold people responsible for those roles if they refuse to act on them in some way.
On the other hand, I believe that pharmacists who refuse to serve medications to people they find objectionable, or doctors who mendaciously refuse to grant sterilizations, are acting unethically. But aren’t those pharmacists just refusing to perform their job in ways they find objectionable?
The difference, I think, is that the pharmacist’s refusal to sell medications, or the doctors’ refusal to sterilize, is deliberately putting a patient in harm’s way. A porn actress who decides not to do anal, or a worker who refuses to dump toxic waste or to foster some financial scam on poor people, is hurting the bottom line, not a customer. The pharmacist and the doctor are being prejudiced, the porn actress or worker are not.
I know there is this belief that we have the right to be prejudiced. Obviously we have the right to think whatever we want, but there is no such thing as a “right to discriminate” (unless one uses the word “discriminate” in the sense of “noting differences,” which is trivial).
Of course the people who invoke this “right” are always white Christian men using their prejudice as a weapon against women, non-Christians, or non-whites, especially women. It’s a privilege, not a “right.” The premise of equality is not only individualistic but also collective, a fact that eludes us because we are indoctrinated to believe individualism is the only possible starting point.
There is one point on which I disagree with FCM. She says that contracting for sex is different from any other contract, but I see no reason to start from that premise. For one thing, other contracts also entail the risk of rape, as plenty of sweatshop working girls (some who are child slaves) can testify. Other contracts also entail the risk of disease, as plenty of workers who have suffered from, or died from, workplace-related diseases can testify. I understand that women in pornography are far more at risk of both these things than most women, but there is no qualitative difference.
But beyond that, I don’t see that there is a way in which a woman’s refusal to perform anal should be accepted but a woman’s refusal to dump toxic waste or scam poor people should not. The basic issue here is one of ethics: one should not be forced to do something that one does not want to do, whether the reason is personal or whether it is because it hurts others. This, it seems to me, is the basis of real consent.
All capitalist work is degrading by definition, since it severs the connection between the person’s mind and the person’s body. Contracting for sex, even in the best case scenario, is an extreme case of this degradation. From the theoretical standpoint, if prostitution is a form of human sale, work is a form of human rental.
Here is one example of labor slavery that is very similar to prostitution slavery. The difference is that because it happened to men, it is recognized as slavery, while prostitution, because it happens to women, is not recognized as slavery.
It occurs to me that a voluntaryist could simply decide to bite the bullet and declare that consent for sex can be given prospectively. I really don’t think that they would follow through with this in their personal lives, however. Heck, I don’t think they would do this in any area of their lives, let alone sex. It would be a logically consistent position, but it don’t see how it could be an ethical position.